As you walk the Great Western Staircase, you are watched by the silent and historic company of 77 “Famous Faces”—including governors, presidents, explorers, poets, and soldiers. The Capitol stone carvers created the faces on site, using plaster models that had been made by a sculptor in New York City. There are also many unidentified faces that the carvers used to fill in the ornamentation, some of whom were probably friends and relatives. Smaller, whimsical faces and heads were created by the stone carvers to vary the elaborate foliage, and they can be found everywhere. Notice the complexity and variety of the carvings. Remember that it was all done by hand with a hammer and chisel, and that no pattern was repeated.
One of the famous faces is President Abraham Lincoln, visible on the top of the column in front of you. Lincoln visited Albany in 1861 on his way to Washington to assume the Presidency. After his assassination in 1865, his funeral train reversed the route of his earlier journey. Thousands came to pay their respects to the martyred president as he lay in state in Albany’s original Capitol building.
Look around the left side of the column to see another Civil War hero: General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant died at nearby Mount McGregor New York in 1885, shortly after finishing his memoirs. His body lay in state here in the Capitol for two days, and was viewed by an estimated 80,000 people. A bronze plaque in the floor of the State Street Lobby commemorates the spot where Grant’s coffin was placed.
People who were famous in the 19th century are not all household names today. Look across from General Grant to see New York Senator and Congressman Roscoe Conkling. A powerful figure in the 1870s and 80s, he was one of the founders of the Republican Party and an avid supporter of the 14th amendment, giving African-Americans the right to vote. Today, he is probably familiar only to political historians. He died from pneumonia caught during the famous “Blizzard of 1888”, the most famous snowstorm in American history.
Return to the carving of Lincoln and look around the column to the right. Famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglas is the only African American among the 77 famous faces. A former slave, he dedicated his life to writing and speaking out against slavery, and working for equal rights.
Toward the glass doors to your left, notice the poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman—two of the most famous poets of the nineteenth century. This area is sometimes referred to as the “poets corner”.
In 1898, it was discovered that no famous women were included on the stairway. Before the stone-carving project was complete, six were added, including suffragette Susan B. Anthony, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and Civil War Nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. They can be found between the first and second floors.